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Tensorflow / Tensorflow.js in Review

For my PhD, I've been using both Tensorflow.js (Tensorflow for Javascript) and more recently Tensorflow for Python (including the bundled Keras) extensively for implementing multiple different models. Given the experiences I've had so far, I thought it was high time I put my thoughts to paper so to speak and write a blog post reviewing the 2 frameworks.

Tensorflow logo

Tensorflow for Python

Let's start with Tensorflow for Python. I haven't been using it as long as Tensorflow.js, but as far as I can tell they've done a great job of ensuring it comes with batteries included. It has layers that come in an enormous number of different flavours for doing everything you can possibly imagine - including building Transformers (though I ended up implementing the time signal encoding in my own custom layer).

Building custom layers is not particularly difficult either - though you do have to hunt around a bit for the correct documentation, and I haven't yet worked out the all the bugs with loading model checkpoints that use custom layers back in again.

Handling data as a generic "tensor" that contains an n-dimension slab of data is - once you get used to it - a great way of working. It's not something I would recommend to the beginner however - rather I would recommend checking out Brain.js. It's easier to setup, and also more transparent / easier to understand what's going on.

Data preprocessing however is where things start to get complicated. Despite a good set of API reference docs to refer to, it's not clear how one is supposed to implement a performant data preprocessing pipeline. There are multiple methods for doing this (tf.data.Dataset, tf.utils.Sequence, and others), and I have as of yet been unable to find a definitive guide on the subject.

Other small inconsistencies are also present, such as both the Keras website and the Tensorflow API docs both documenting the Keras API, which in and of itself appears to be an abstraction of the Tensorflow API.... it gets confusing. Some love for the docs more generally is also needed, as I found some the wording in places ambiguous as to what it meant - so I ended up guessing and having to work it out by experimentation.

By far the biggest issue I encountered though (aside from the data preprocessing pipeline, which is really confusing and frustrating) is that a highly specific version of CUDA is required for each version of Tensorflow. Thankfully, there's a table of CUDA / CuDNN versions to help you out, but it's still pretty annoying that you have to have a specific version. Blender manages to be CUDA enabled while supporting enough different versions of CUDA that I haven't had an issue on stock Ubuntu with the propriety Nvidia drivers and the system CUDA version, so whhy can't Tensorflow do it too?

Tensorflow.js

This brings me on to Tensorflow.js, the Javascript bindings for libtensorflow (the underlying C++ library). This also has the specific version of CUDA issue, but in addition the version requirement documented in the README is often wrong, leaving you to make random wild guesses as to which version is required!

Despite this flaw, Tensorflow.js fixes a number of inconsistencies in Tensorflow for Python - I suspect that it was written after Tensorflow for Python was first implemented. The developers have effectively learnt valuable lessons from the Python version of Tensorflow, which has resulted in a coherent and cohesive API that makes a much more sense than the API in Python. A great example of this is tf.Dataset: The data preprocessing pipeline in Tensorflow.js is well designed and easy to use. The Python version could learn a lot from this.

While Tensorflow.js doesn't have quite the same set of features (a number of prebuilt layers that exist in Python don't yet existing in Tensorflow.js), it still provides a reasonable set of features that satisfy most use-cases. I have noticed a few annoying inconsistencies in the loss functions though and how they behave - for example I implemented an autoencoder in Tensorflow.js, but it only returned black and white pixels - whereas Tensorflow for Python returned greyscale as intended.

Aside from improving CUDA support and adding more prebuilt layers, the other thing that Tensorflow.js struggles with is documentation. It has comparatively few guides with respect to Tensorflow for Python, and it also has an ambiguity problem in the API docs. This could be mostly resolved by being slightly more generous with explanations as to what things are and do. Adding some examples to the docs in question would also help - as would also fixing the bug where it does not highlight the item you're currently viewing in the navigation page (DevDocs support would be awesome too).

Conclusion

Tensorflow for Python and Tensorflow.js are feature-filled and performant frameworks for machine learning and processing large datasets with GPU acceleration. Many tutorials are provided to help newcomers to the frameworks, but once you've followed a tutorial or 2 you're left very much to be on your own. A number of caveats and difficulties such as CUDA versions and confusing APIs / docs make mastering the framework difficult.

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